[5 October 2008]
The tradition of the “answer song” runs deep into the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly within its African-American genres. A staple of blues and R&B music since the 1930s, the idea of answering one mocking taunt with another has its broader social equivalent in the “dozens” humor that runs even deeper into African-American history. Like dozens humor, the answer song has invariably involved a form of “diss” humor, whereby one artist responds to another artist’s lyric with a rebuttal, put-down, or slight. Provocative, though often light-hearted in tone, these answers play into the even deeper tradition of “superiority” humor expressed since the satirical drama of Aristophanes in Ancient Greece and the allegorical tales of African folklore. Throughout rock ‘n’ roll history, although the answer song has inspired or reflected some feisty feuds between white artists (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” being one of the more renowned), the phenomenon has been ubiquitous within certain black musical genres.
Hip-hop culture has been especially amenable to answer-song humor, its competitive feuds, lyrical boasting, and egotistical performances making it ideally suited for such fun and frivolity. Whether in defense of the personal, the territorial, or the political, rap song feuds have broken out periodically ever since the genre’s inception; the most famous skirmish became known as the “Roxanne Wars”.
Sparked by the release of “Roxanne, Roxanne” by U.T.F.O. in 1984, this song negatively characterized a fictional woman—Roxanne—for snubbing the advances of the band’s three rapper-narrators. Heard and perceived as a sexist smear against women by the 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden, the offended teen adopted the moniker of Roxanne Shanté and proceeded to put out a refutation in the form of “Roxanne’s Revenge” later that same year.
As with many answer songs, “Roxanne’s Revenge” parodied the original by employing its same beats, while it confronted its predecessor through a parade of vulgar counter-punches. The gauntlet duly thrown down, the battle soon broadened as various other rappers joined the fray. It is estimated that over the next year, over 30 answer records were produced on the subject of Roxanne and her exploits. Among these were “Roxanne’s Doctor” by the Real Men, “Do the Roxanne” by Dr. Rocx & Co., and “Roxanne’s a Man” by Ralph Rolle. The latter claimed that Roxanne was actually a man who had been sodomized in prison then, feeling that he had lost his manhood, turned himself into a woman after his release.
If the Roxanne wars best represented playground dozens humor being played out during the early hip-hop years, so the equally legendary Annie songs propelled the burgeoning answer phenomenon three decades earlier. As with Roxanne, the Annie saga unfolded on the battlefield of gender, as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ saucy provocations caused a stir that would resonate with responses throughout the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll. Unlike the Roxanne wars, though, the Annie songs were answered to, not only by other artists who felt or acted affronted, but by Ballard himself.
The story of the Annie songs, like the band that popularized them, is a tangled web. The Midnighters were the Royals prior to 1953, and fronted by Lawson Smith. After ex-factory worker Ballard (a.k.a. John H. Kendricks) replaced Smith as lead singer, the band changed its name and its style. Ballard brought a rougher, raunchier approach to the band’s doo-wop R&B sound, one welcomed by Federal Records, the independent label that had already been causing a stir by releasing a number of provocative and sexually suggestive records, among them the Dominoes’ infamous “Sixty Minute Man” in 1951. Ballard, too, had a penchant for the risqué, and he set about the business of bringing more controversy to his label.
The Midnighters’ 1953 debut single, “Get It”, ruffled feathers due to its central double entendre, but worse (or better) was yet to come. When Ballard brought his new doo-wop jump song, “Sock It to Me Mary”, to the studio, his producer felt the content and innuendo to be a little too strong. After some in-studio negotiation, the potentially offending “Sock It” was jettisoned and the title was changed to “Work With Me Annie”, the new appellation added in honor of the engineer’s pregnant wife. A 12-bar blues number mixed with a lilting backbeat that rested on sample-style backing vocals swinging to the sound “a-hum”, a semi-subliminal simulation of the sex act was sonically rooted into the song’s rhythm section. On top, Ballard added further onomatopoeia “oohs” and assorted squeals to punctuate the act throughout. The lyric itself was pure locker-room lewdness, its risqué innuendo targeted to titillate a youth audience that hardly needed to read between these lines: “Annie, please don’t cheat / Gimme all my meat / Oo-oo-wee, so good to me / Work with me Annie / Let’s get it while the gettin’ is good.”
On release, word-of-mouth about the saucy “Work With Me Annie” spread like wild fire; some daring African-American D.J.s even ventured to air it on their radio shows. As the song gained traction it began to leak from the protected confines of the “race” market and into the white mainstream. Before long, white and black kids were dancing the “dirty boogie” (a variant on the jitterbug) and singing along to Annie’s song. In a parallel foreshadowing of rap music developments in the 1980s, the establishment of the 1950s had shown willingness to tolerate “obscene” R&B content so long as it did not penetrate beyond black culture.
With “Annie” that line was crossed as the lyrics were not only thinly veiled in their sexual innuendo but also played into established white stereotypes of “negro” male sexuality run amok. The forces of censorship soon descended as D.J.s were warned by the FCC not to play the disc and the magazines Variety and Downbeat both denounced the song as smut. By this point, though, the “Annie” cult had taken hold, only fueled by adult attempts to restrict it. Helped more than harmed by the furor, the song shot to number one on the R&B charts in 1954 and put Hank Ballard & the Midnighters on the frontlines of crossover R&B, a precursor to the rock ‘n’ roll tidal wave that would break over the next two years.
Aware that he had tapped into the rising youth rebellion of the times and mindful that risqué humor had young people clamoring to court the forbidden, Ballard quickly took advantage of the commotion over Annie’s exploits. Within the same year, Ballard wrote responses to his own songs, creating, with follow-ups “Sexy Ways” and “Annie Had a Baby”, a trilogy of “Annie”-related hits. Following the same novelty formula of lyrical gimmickry, Ballard stirred more sex-like sounds, child-like gibberish, and double entendres into his saucy stews. “Sexy Ways” goes, “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle / I just love your sexy ways / Upside down, all around / Any old way, just pound, pound, pound.” The result: another hit. Next up was “Annie Had a Baby”, released in September of 1954. Though another success, this third pitch only reached number ten on the R&B charts, childbirth apparently less titillating than the act facilitating it; the “Annie” novelty, it appeared, was fading.
Talk of Annie’s demise, however, proved to be greatly exaggerated, as the phenomenon continued on through other “response” songs over the next year. Etta James and Georgia Gibbs both enjoyed success with female answers to “Work With Me Annie” in 1955. Johnny Otis reconstructed the song around the same basic melody, then hired his own Roxanne Shanté in 14-year-old Etta James, handing her a version of the song to record called “Roll With Me Henry”. Alas, even this more innocuous title met industry resistance and Otis was forced to compromise into calling his answer “The Wallflower”. Although this version dialed down the volume on the double entendres, still James’ gutsy blues voice added a bawdy quality to lyrics which still resonated with witty innuendo from a female perspective: “While the cats are ballin’ / You better stop your stallin’ / It’s intermission in a minute / So you better get with it.”
Pop singer Gibbs, though, was assigned a more sanitized, parent-friendly Annie answer in the same year, the title “Dance With Me Henry” avoiding the kind of sexual ramifications then associated with words like “work” and “roll”. Others who entered the Annie dialogue contemporaneously included the El Dorados, who put out “Annie’s Answer”, the West Coast Midnighters, who pilfered Ballard’s band’s name as well as his subject matter with “Annie Pulled a Hum-Bug”, and the Champions, who formally introduced the two lover-antagonists in “Annie Met Henry”. Ballard tried to reclaim the heroine with “Annie’s Aunt Fannie” and then the hero with “Henry’s Got Flat Feet”, while the Nu Tones hoped to put the legend to rest with “Annie Kicked the Bucket”. Though the Annie saga would never flourish again as it had throughout 1954 and ‘55, the answer song form has lived on and, as the Roxanne wars illustrate, has become particularly popular as a vehicle for diss humor within hip-hop culture.
Ballard—with then without the Midnighters—continued to release his patented risqué R&B thereafter to varying success. Titles like “Finger Poppin’ Time”, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go”, “Poppin’ the Whip”, and “Do It Zulu Style” suggested that Ballard had not lost his knack for provocative double entendres, nor his taste for tantalizing titillation. Even “The Twist”, which Ballard penned in 1958 and which enjoyed such international success in the hands of Chubby Checker in 1960 and 1962, was given its own twist by Ballard, who accentuated the sexual maneuver elements he felt were implicit in this dance’s instructions. With his saucy songs, cross-race appeal, and ability to subvert the FCC with provocative humor while inciting the rebellious sensibilities of the insurgent youth culture, Ballard was in many respects the 2 Live Crew of his era. This grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll innuendo and caretaker of the Annie answer saga was finally inducted by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, 13 years prior to his death.